VALDOSTA –– In the first meeting of the season between Highland Christian and Georgia Christian, the reigning state champions jumped on their opponents early and left no doubt.
The Eagles (8-0) continued their winning ways with a resounding 62-27 drubbing of the Generals on Tuesday night.
Four Eagles scored in double-figures, led by Quron Baker’s 13 points. Xavier Godfrey poured in 11 points followed by Jyrell Jones and Colson Moody with 10 points apiece.
The Eagles opened the game with a full-court pressure defense that caused a host of problems for the Generals much of the first half as the Eagles led 35-10 at halftime.
“They’re long on defense,” Georgia Christian boys coach Mike Johnson said. “We did pretty well against their press, which has given us a lot of problems in the past. We were able to get down to the half court, but their pressure defense was still intense. With their length and their size, every pass was a little off. Every shot wasn’t exactly what we wanted so we started rushing. We were rushing shots, rushing passes and they just did a good job on defense.”
Coming out of the locker room in the third quarter, the Eagles created even more separation as the team took a 51-18 lead late in the third on an offensive rebound and put back by reserve guard Moses Ham.
The Eagles’ press, while effective, didn’t lead to as many transition baskets. However, the Eagles remained patient offensively and punished the Generals with stellar ball movement and high-percentage shots around the basket.
“(The Generals) just did a good job of running back and packing the lane,” Highland coach Joel Stites said. “For the most part, we did a good job of just being patient and trying to run offense and finding the open guy. We hit some shots. I thought the press was OK –– we weren’t really trying to take it from them, we were just trying to make them turn the ball over. We weren’t trying to gamble or get out of control. We just stayed in front and played our spots and all in all, I think we did that tonight.”
With 4:21 left in the third quarter, following a defensive breakdown that allowed an easy basket by the Generals’ Christian Johnson, Stites marched out a few feet onto the court to call timeout. Stites lit into his starting unit for the lapse and took all five players out in favor of the reserves.
“We changed up our offense in the second half –– we played a little conservative in the beginning, our first time matching up with them this year,” Johnson said of the Generals’ game plan in the second half. “We tried to played a little more aggressive coming into the third quarter down a pretty good bit, nothing to lose. It led to some good things and led to some good looks there.”
Though the layup by Johnson cut the Eagles’ lead to 44-18, Stites was unhappy with the level of defense his team displayed and wanted to send a message.
“We just don’t play defense that way,” Stites said of the mass substitution. “I don’t care what the score is –– whether we’re up 20 or down 20 –– we can’t give up freebie layups. Hopefully, me giving them that reminder and them not seeing the floor again will help them remember that defense comes first.”
Moody led an energetic bench unit for the Eagles, knocking down a pair of 3s during his time on the floor. In all, the Eagles bench tallied 24 points in the win. Seeing more playing time than usual, the reserve unit kept the intensity high and didn’t experience a letdown.
“We don’t practice to lessen our expectations,” Stites said of the second unit. “That second group, we want them to play like the first group because when they’re on the court, they count. They brought great energy on the defensive side first –– they got some turnovers, they didn’t give up any freebies and Colson Moody scored about 10 points in about six minutes and hit some 3s. It was fun to get our bench guys that usually play up cheering them on. It was a good flip of the coin for us.”
Trailing from practically the opening tip, the Generals didn’t do themselves any favors throughout the game between turnovers and poor shooting from the field and the free throw line, specifically.
Johnson liked that his team could generate a high number of free throws, but wasn’t pleased with so many misses.
“We’ve got to make free throws, No. 1,” Johnson said. “We got to the free throw line a lot. We were able to penetrate and get to the free throw line, but if we can’t make them, it’s all for naught. We learned that (Highland) is going to be a strong defensive team all year and anything that we do lazy, they’re going the other way with it.”
For the Eagles, the game signified how the tables have turned in the rivalry over the past few years.
“Well, you have to respect the rivalry,” Stites said. “I’m an Ohio State-Michigan guy and it’s still a rivalry. It’s been a little one-sided on our side this time, but you’ve got to respect where we’ve come from. There were multiple years where we didn’t sniff a win against them. We’re blessed to be able to do it now, but they’ve got some good young talent. It’s a rivalry for a reason and we like that.”
The Highland Christian girls weren’t as fortunate in Tuesday’s opener, losing to the Generals 53-13.
The Eagles were never able to gain traction against the continuity of the Generals, trailing 33-5 at halftime and 42-9 after three quarters.
Highland Christian hosts Heritage Christian on Dec. 9. The girls tip off at 5:30 p.m., while the boys will begin at 7 p.m.